The Palestinian right of return is a political position or principle asserting that Palestinian refugees, both first-generation refugees and their descendants, have a right to return to the property they or their forebears left or which they were forced to leave in the former British Mandate of Palestine (currently Israel and Palestinian territories), as part of the 1948 Palestinian exodus, a result of the 1948 Palestine War and due to the 1967 Six-Day war. Proponents of the right of return hold that it is a “sacred” right, as well as an inalienable and basic human right, whose applicability both generally and specifically to the Palestinians is protected under international law. This view holds that those who opt not to return or for whom return is not feasible, should receive compensation in lieu. The government of Israel regards the claim as a Palestinian ambit claim, and does not view the admission of Palestinian refugees to their former homes in Israel as a right, but rather as a political claim to be resolved as part of a final peace settlement. The right of return is rejected universally by almost all Israelis, including a majority of the far-left. While Israel has offered compensation, assistance in resettlement, and return for an extremely limited number of refugees based solely on family reunification or humanitarian considerations, it has refused to compromise on any unlimited right of return for all refugees and their descendants. These and other arguments are outlined below.
“Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.” – Article 13, Universal Declaration of Human Rights (10 December 1948).
“The Geneva Conventions of 1949. The General Assembly, Having considered further the situation in Palestine … Resolves that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible.” -UN General Assembly Resolution 194 (11 December 1948) [see more passages cited in the argument page].
“Dispossession and Ethnic Cleansing were an Integral Part of Herzl’s Colonial Project. His real intentions and full extent and scope of the colonial settlement that Herzl was after were reflected in the draft-agreement of The Jewish-Ottoman Land Company (JOLC) ‘for the purpose of settling Palestine and Syria with Jews’ that Herzl lobbied for approval from Sultan Abdulhameed in Istanbul in 1901. According to article I of the draft, the JOLC would be granted ‘A special right to purchase large estates and small farms and to use them for agriculture, horticulture, forestry, and mining. On these areas (the JOLC) may build all installations, roads, bridges, buildings and houses, industrial and other facilities, which it considers appropriate. The JOLC is further entitled ‘to drain and utilize swamps (if there are any) by planting or in any other way, to establish small and large settlements, and to settle Jews in them.’ Article III gives the JOLC the right to deport the native populations, an act aiming at legitimizing ethnic cleansing, by granting “The right to exchange economic enclaves of its territory, with the exception of the holy places or places already designated for worship. The owners shall receive plots of equal size and quality procured by it (the JOLC) in other provinces and territories of the Ottoman Empire.”
According to Alexander Safian, Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees a right to return “to his own country”. But, the Palestinians who were displaced were never citizens or legal residents of Israel. Therefore, they can have no right of return to Israel.
According to Alexander Safian, Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights does not guarantee a right of return because the clause “everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country” was meant to guarantee the right to leave. According to its legislative history, Article 13 was aimed at governments which imprisoned certain subgroups of their own nationals by preventing them from leaving. According to its sponsor, the mention of a “right to return” was included to assure that “the right to leave a country, already sanctioned in the article, would be strengthened by the assurance of the right to return.
Some critics of the Palestinian “right of return” also argue that it is not supported by international precedent, drawing attention to the 758,000-866,000 Jews were expelled, fled or emigrated from the Arab Middle East and North Africa between 1945 and 1956, with property losses of $1 billion. These critics argue that since these refugees were neither compensated nor allowed return—to no objection on the part of Arab leaders or international legal authorities—the international community had accepted this migration of Jews as fait accomplish, and thereby set legal precedent in the region against a right of return.
Ruth Lapidoth from the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs has argued that U.N. General Assembly Resolution 194 does not specify a ‘right’, but rather says refugees “should” be allowed to return.
Efraim Karsh asserts that “whatever the strengths and weaknesses of the Palestinians’ legal case, their foremost argument for a ‘right of return’ has always rested on a claim of unprovoked victimhood.”
Although the status of Palestinian nationals/citizens after the creation of the State of Israel has been much debated, established principles of state succession, human rights and humanitarian law confirm that the denationalization of Palestinians was illegal and that they retain the right to return to their places of origin.
Raphael Eitan, Chief of Staff of the Israeli Defence Forces, New York Times, 14 April 1983. “When we have settled the land, all the Arabs will be able to do about it will be to scurry around like drugged cockroaches in a bottle.”
There is no formal mechanism in international law to demand repatriation of refugees and their descendants in general, or Palestinians specifically. No international legislation, binding UN resolutions or agreements between Israel and the Palestinians require this.
It is the failure of Arab states to incorporate Palestinians into their societies by offering legal status (with the exception of Jordan) which keeps the Palestinian refugees in their current limbo, not Israeli policy.
On March 15, 2000, a group of 100 prominent Palestinians from around the world expressed their opinion that the right of return is individual, rather than collective, and that it cannot therefore be reduced or forfeited by any representation on behalf of the Palestinians in any agreement or treaty. They argued that the right to property ‘cannot be extinguished by new sovereignty or occupation and does not have a statute of limitation.’
Stig Jagerskiold in 1966, in which he argues that the right of return was intended as an individual and not a collective right: “…[it] is intended to apply to individuals asserting an individual right. There was no intention here to address the claims of masses of people who have been displaced as a by-product of war or by political transfers of territory or population, such as the relocation of ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe during and after the Second World War, the flight of the Palestinians from what became Israel, or the movement of Jews from the Arab countries.”
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